Trusting: the Other Side of Trust

A lot has been written about trust.  It’s often not clear, however, whether the subject is trustworthiness, or trusting.  If trust in banking is down, does that mean that banks are less trustworthy? Or that people are less inclined to trust?

Most of my work has been about trustworthiness (e.g. The Trusted Advisor). Other people write more overtly about trusting – a good example is the HBR article ReThinking Trust,  by Stanford Professor Rod Kramer, which focuses on the danger of trusting.

Some people write about the big subject of trust itself – the end result of the interaction between trustor and trustee.  A fine example is Francis Fukuyama’s classic Trust: the Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity.

Finally, many other sources end up talking about all three; think Covey’s Speed of Trust, or Bob Hurley’s The Decision to Trust.

The Power of Trusting

The sources above are largely academic. In the popular press, by far the most common topics are trustworthiness and the state of trust itself (trust as the result of an interaction between trustor and trustee). Throw a dart into a pile of 100 popular press articles on trust, and you’re likely to find Congress, investment bankers, and the Madoff-du-jour scandal as the subject.

This means most public policy debates focus on trustworthiness.  Most examples are negative; hence trusting is positioned as cautionary, i.e. watch out for car salesmen, lawyers, etc. The moral of the story is tut tut, another untrustworthy group, watch out.

And all this focus on negative examples of trustworthiness is having an effect on people’s inclination to trust. How could it not! And that is a terribly unfortunate thing. Because the scarce trust resource increasingly is not trustworthiness, but the willingness to trust.  We need to start focusing on the trustor, not just on the trustee.

The power of trusting is enormous. When it comes to trust, there is an answer to the chicken and egg dilemma of which comes first, the trustor or the trustee?  The answer is trustor.  Consider:

  • Until one party decides to take a risk and trust another, trust does not come into existence
  • Trusting has a profound impact on trustworthiness – think “the fastest way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him,” or “people live up or down to the expectations of them”
  • Trusting is inherently an act of optimism; a decline in trusting in the business world drives down innovation, and prevents collaboration and alliances

I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks. There is interesting material out there on the lessons from Prisoner’s dilemma, game theory, sociobiology, and the global decline in violence over the centuries – not to mention the backlash against competitive strategy going on in business schools.

I welcome any comments on the subject; I’m trying to do some thinking out loud here.  And I trust the readers of this blog to come up with great contributions.

Traveling Trust

I’m in Munich for a one-day stopover en route to Bucharest. I left New York a day earlier than planned to avoid Hurricane Sandy. And I’m realizing yet again – travel has a way of doing that – what an extraordinary level of trust we all take for granted in our modern world.

Yes, the news is full of the opposite. Political campaigns spin the truth (though trust-weary Americans might want to check out the Greek scandal du jour to feel a bit better).

Doctors have a hard time trusting pharmaceutical manufacturers. Patients have a hard time trusting their doctors, and doctors have a hard time trusting their patients. Some patients trust the internet more than their doctors, often with bad results. And let’s not even start with trust in financial services.

A Trusted Trip

With all that going on, it’s easy to forget some basic things. I can freely cross national borders with some mere papers. I can trust the exchange rate when I buy Euros. I can trust the flight controllers that govern the airspace, the airline handling companies that do catering, the bus and taxi systems I encounter.

But most of all, I know I can rely deeply on the basic human decency of people I run into to help with any simple issues – even though we may not speak the same language, and we’ll never see each other again. I can trust that people will give me directions, help me with travel issues, take a moment to help sort out a problem. And I’m almost never, ever wrong in that basic level of trust.

Which motivates me, of course, to try and return the favor whenever I can. And you do the same, I know.

What’s Really Amazing

What’s really amazing is not how often trust goes wrong, but how often it goes right.  Our modern life is unbelievably complex, and yet runs remarkably well.

I don’t want to be Pollyana-ish about this. The fact that trust is so pervasive is precisely the reason we notice and feel trust violations so deeply. We are all right to be deeply offended by untrustworthy behavior; if we lose our capacity to be outraged, we have lost our ability to recover.

Lots of things can be said about lost trust, but I want to highlight one.  Trust is reciprocal. My trusting you causes you to trust me, and vice versa. An absence of trust starts with one party. The presence of trust starts with one party. The question facing all of us is, will you be the one to start?  Or will you always insist on the other party going first?

Do you insist on your vendors insuring you against all losses?  Then don’t be surprised when they don’t trust you.  Do you have all your employees sign cutting-edge non-compete clauses?  Then perhaps you can understand why they might seek ways around it.  Do you give lie detector tests to your employees? Then you might gain insight into why you have a shrinkage problem.

You can do your part as an individual too. To be trusted, be trustworthy.  And if you think others are not trustworthy as you – try trusting them first.

For starters, that’ll make your travel a lot easier.

Cheating at Harvard: Shocked, Shocked!

Perhaps you heard: half of a 250-person undergraduate class at Harvard has been accused of cheating on an exam. Here are:

Let’s get the irrelevancies out of the way.  First, the class was “Introduction to Congress.” Pause for yucks.

Secondly, there are the occasional whiners: “it was really hard, not fair,” or “they didn’t tell us how to define things.” Let’s not pause here either.

Moving right along, now, let’s assume that Harvard is no better or worse than other schools. You may agree or not, but I think the interesting issues lie elsewhere.

David Gebler, ethicist and author of the recent The Three Power Values, says: “It’s the worst hypocrisy to create a set of social norms and expectations in our society of which Harvard is the pinnacle, and then act as shocked as Inspector Renault in Casablanca that the students are acting unethically.”

He’s right. There are three interesting student reactions that seem to crop up in articles about the scandal:

  1. You mean, that was “cheating?”
  2. Come on, everybody does that.
  3. What do you expect me to do, the point is to win.

All three are serious causes for concern, but for very different reasons.

You Mean, That was Cheating?

This isn’t as dumb as many may think on first hearing.

The class in question was conducted making heavy use of teaching aides and study groups. This makes great sense given the need for collaborative workforces in the future. Unfortunately, if learning is primarily group learning, it puts pressure on the academic program and faculty to be very clear about boundaries between individual and group accountability.  (There’s a parallel here between group and individual bonus bases within corporations).

That raises many challenges, chief among them that the exam was “open internet.” In a day and age when everyone can share everything with everyone else in real-time, this goes beyond being just a barn-door of a loophole; it’s a fundamental failure to articulate the distinction between individual and group accountabilities.

This doesn’t mean students didn’t behave unethically; but it puts if anything more of a burden on institutions, particularly on schools, to delineate the boundaries.

Come On, Everybody Does That

To the extent this is true – and it’s considerable – shame on the role models.

As Howard Gardner points out in When Ambition Trumps Ethics, within the hallowed Ivy halls alone there are plenty of examples of

“professors [who] cut corners — in their class attendance, their attention to student work and, most flagrantly, their use of others to do research.

Most embarrassingly, when professors are caught — whether in financial misdealings or even plagiarizing others’ work — there are frequently no clear punishments. If punishments ensue, they are kept quiet, and no one learns the lessons that need to be learned.”

Gardner cites frequent, broad-based, research over time that suggests students over the last 20 years have become blasé about violations.  The majority think firing faculty for falsification of resumes is an over-reaction, and they don’t see much wrong with the behavior of the Enron gang in manipulating prices. After all, “everyone does it.”

I needn’t mention the coverups of the Catholic church, the repression of the ruling class at Penn State, or the general defense of cyclist Lance Armstrong, just to pick a few recent examples. And for heaven’s sake let’s not talk the fate of truth at political party conventions. Sadly, everyone really, really does do that.

“Everybody does that” is no excuse, widespread though it is. Cheating is unethical and should be condemned. But those doing the condemning are frequently those who, like Renault, are by default encouraging the behavior by their failure to act.

What Do You Expect – the Point is to Win

This is the most shocking of the attitudes. While the other two reflect some ambiguity in execution, this argument attacks ethics directly, claiming that ethics should be subordinated to the pursuit of success. A classic ends justify the means argument, which is in principle anti-ethical.

Rich Sternhell, retired executive, says he was not surprised by Gardner’s piece.

“By the time people get to Harvard (or Yale or Penn State or wherever) they have had to compete in ways that never tempted my generation. I note David Brooks’ observation of the recent GOP Convention, how all the speakers with the notable exception of Condoleeza Rice talked about “I” rather than “we”.

Every individual example of ethical violation weakens our community bond.  Baseball players worry about their contracts not the team. CEOs worry about their parachutes or share value, not the legacy of the company.  The concept of stewardship is rarely heard.”

I would throw in for equal blame our leading business thinkers.  We have become subconsciously infected by the doctrines of competitive advantage, shareholder value, and an Ayn-Rand-lensed perversion of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, so much that we have a generation that can’t tell ethics from economics.  We actually have game theorists in the Harvard Business Review arguing that throwing a match in the Olympics is in principle no different from a lob shot in tennis – since after all, the ultimate goal is to win.

People, the purpose of business is not to make a profit.  That way lies madness. And a generation of cheaters.

They are still morally to blame, but the people who raised them, taught them, trained them and role-modeled for them are at least as culpable.

 

 

Lance Armstrong: Resigning to Spend More Time With His Family?

“I am resigning in order to spend more time with my family.”

That is what we hear from politicians when they depart under a cloud. Lance Armstrong was scarcely more original, “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Armstrong said in a statement. “For me, that time is now.”

Armstrong protests that he has never been found guilty of doping, which is true. He has also insisted that he would never dope because to do so would jeopardize his career.

Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook.” Bill Clinton “did not have sex with that woman.” Ronald Reagan, speaking of Iran Contra, said, “Mistakes were made.”

The one line we always wait to hear is the line we never hear: “I didn’t do it.”

Instead, we’re left with: “I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours,” Armstrong said, adding: “The toughest event in the world, where the strongest man wins. Nobody can ever change that.”

True. And yet not enough.

How Can You Fix Ethics if You Can’t Spell Ethics?

The Economist recently published an article called Fine and Punishment: The Economics of Crime Suggests that Corporate Fines Should Be Even Higher. It’s fascinating reading: it suggests that we can economically calculate how to deter corporate malfeasance.

As the article puts it:

The economics of crime prevention starts with a depressing assumption: executives simply weigh up all their options, including the illegal ones. Given a risk-free opportunity to mis-sell a product, or form a cartel, they will grab it. Most businesspeople are not this calculating, of course, but the assumption of harsh rationality is a useful way to work out how to deter rule-breakers.

In the US, anti-trust penalties run up to 40%; in the UK, they’re more like 10%.  In either country, the article notes, crime pays.  In fact, the ROI is downright incentivizing.  So it’s no surprise, the article suggests, that crime seems to be undeterred.

Prosecute the Bastards!

You might think, well then, raise the penalties – massively.  Here’s the Economist’s logic on why that is, tut-tut, really not such a good idea at all, don’t you know:

There are plenty of arguments against ultra-high fines. One is that false convictions carry too high a cost. Another is that fines of this sort could cripple firms, reducing competition.

Really.

Argument the first. The cost of a false conviction in a personal capital case is, let me see – oh yes, personal death. The cost of a false conviction in a corporate cartel case is – the falsely accused corporate entity pays money. Why do I feel the “too high a cost” argument doesn’t cut it here?

Argument the second. Ultra-high fines could reduce competition. Unlike anti-trust violations? Unlike price-fixing? Is this really The Economist proposing this twaddle?

Ethics Without the Ethical Part

Here’s the thing.  The entire article is about ethical issues, yet never once mentions ethics. It’s one thing to include a caveat like, “Here we’ll discuss a purely utilitarian view of ethical behavior.” Fine. But to never even mention the existence of another approach to ethics is fodder for paranoid amateur ethicists like me.

Do you think maybe, just maybe, one of the reasons white collar crime is so much on the rise is that no one – most especially not the Fourth Estate – chooses to describe unethical behavior as being – unethical?!

Some of it, I suspect, is style. In too many self-congratulatory business and academic circles it is just uncool to use that word. It’s hip to be a deconstructionist, neuro-whateverist, or a student of behavioral incentives – and maybe to study ethics in kind of an anthropological way.  But certainly not to believe in the stuff!

Sorry: if we conduct business solely as an exercise in self-aggrandizing profit maximization, then we will get self-aggrandizing profit-maximizing behavior. If we teach business ethics as a series of cases analyzing the balance of power between “stakeholders,” we will get what we teach.

What would it look like if we actually called ethical violations by their proper name?  We would have business, social end educational leaders insisting on massive sanctions, and not because of their deterrent power – but because of their symbolism.

Where is the language of outrage? To fix LIBOR rates, to rip off customers, to lie to the public – these things should be called by their proper names. Those names would be right and wrong, unethical, immoral, outrageous, anti-societal, sociopathic. Mostly just “wrong.”

The ultimate proper penalty is not more of the same lousy financial currency.  It is another currency – the currency of social respect.  We need to see condemnations, demands for apology – we need public shaming.

Not Just an English Economist Affectation

And now, ripped from the headlines: a few days ago, the IOC booted four pairs of Olympic badminton teams for intentionally throwing their games.  In an intriguing HBR article called Bad(minton) by Design, authors Scott Page and Simon Wilkie argue that:

While many are blaming the players, the real fault lies with the organizers for designing a tournament that encouraged throwing matches. The solution — apart from banning those pesky Danes and other “upsets” — lies in better design. [Italics mine].

They point out – quite rightly – that the design of the tournament (single elimination after pool play) provides perverse incentives to throw a match – assuming that your objective is to maximize your chances to win an Olympic medal. Interesting, to be sure. And their suggestions make sense; after all, why suborn unethical behavior unnecessarily?

We might even agree with the authors’ conclusion: “If you don’t consider incentives and strategic behavior, there will come a day when strategy trumps ethos. We would do much better to design organizations from the outset with Denmark in mind.”

Here’s the problem. In describing the situation, the authors suggest that throwing a game in order to win the tournament is in principle no different from a lob shot in tennis, or going out slow in the 5000m run – a short term tactic in support of a long-term goal.  Can you say, “the end justifies the means?”

I leave it to you, the readers. Can you spot the difference between a tennis lob shot and throwing an Olympic match? If so, congratulations – your ethical instincts are more intact than those whose profession is “competition economics.”

Bonus point: can you tell the difference between throwing a match at the Olympics and throwing the World Series? Me neither. Except that one is being “explained” in the Harvard Business Review as a case of misaligned incentives, and the other – quite properly – is considered the gold standard for sports scandals.

Would somebody please tell the economics profession that they’re missing a few letters in “ethics?” Particularly, the letters e, t, h, i, c and s.

Story Time: Good Intentions Won’t Keep You From Screwing Up

Our Story Time series brings you real, personal examples from business life that shed light on specific ways to lead with trust. Our last story told of innovation, trust, and the freedom to fail. Today’s anecdote zeroes in on the importance of living the trust principles all the time.

A New Anthology

When it comes to trust-building, stories are a powerful tool for both learning and change. Our new book, The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook: A Comprehensive Toolkit for Leading with Trust (Wiley, October 2011), contains a multitude of stories. Told by and about people we know, these stories illustrate the fundamental attitudes, truths, and principles of trustworthiness.

Today’s story is excerpted from our chapter on the three trust models. It vividly demonstrates how the difference between intentions and impact can lead a client to conclude “you’re just like all the others.”

From the Front Lines: Living the Principles

Ian Brodie, who specializes in marketing and sales advice for consultants, coaches, and other professionals, tells a story that illustrates the difference between intentions and impact.

“Back in ’98, I was working in the Netherlands; part of my role was to lead a series of workshops with the executive team to develop their strategy. My colleague was a real expert but badly organized. And to be frank, that’s not one of my strong points either.

“We ended up doing the prep very late. For one workshop in particular we were brainstorming in the bar at 2:00 a.m. The next day the client’s executive team was excited about the possibilities we’d discussed. Great result. With one exception.

“I had a partner on the client side I was supposed to be working with to develop the strategy and prepare the workshops. The next day in the workshop he’d been quietly embarrassed that he didn’t know what we’d prepared.

“He was quite blunt with me afterwards: ‘We were supposed to prepare that workshop together. You said when we started this project that you weren’t like other consultants—you’d work in partnership with us. But you’re just like all the others.’

“It didn’t matter that we’d had a great result, or that there was no malicious intent. We’d promised we’d work together and we didn’t. We’d let him down. He no longer shared his opinions or his insights and we suffered because of that.

“Others can’t see your intentions―they can only see your actions. My intention was to be a great collaborative partner. My actions excluded him and told him I was working in my own interests.

“Here’s the bottom line of what I learned that day: It’s important to live the principles all the time.”

—Ian Brodie (UK)

Connect with Ian on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

++++++

Read more stories about trust:

 

The Three Ps of Trust

Trust is a complex concept in human relationships. In our Chapter 1 of the still-pretty-new The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, we explore ten fundamental attitudes that take aim at the complexities of trust, breaking it down so that it can be managed and more readily increased. Think of the Three Ps as the short list; they represent the core of our thinking on trust.

Trust is Personal

When trust is discussed, it usually refers to people. Yes, you can trust a company, but when you do, you are typically focusing on just one part of trust—dependability. It makes perfect sense to say a company or organization is dependable or reliable. It does not make much sense to say that a corporate entity has your best interests at heart or is sensitive to your needs, or is discreet. Those are things you would usually say about people. Even when it does make sense to say an organization is credible or careful or focused on your interests, the reference is usually to the people in it. At root, trust is personal.

Trust is Paradoxical

Over and over again, you will discover that the things that create trust are the opposite of what you may think. That is why we say trust is paradoxical—in other words, it appears to defy logic. The best way to sell, it turns out, is to stop trying to sell. The best way to influence people is to stop trying to influence them. The best way to gain credibility is to admit what you do not know.

The paradoxical qualities of trust arise because trust is a higher-level relationship. The trust-creating thing to do is often the opposite of what your baser passions tell you to do. Fight or flight, self-preservation, the instinct to win—these are not the motives that drive trust. The ultimate paradox is that, by rising above such instincts, you end up getting better results than if you had striven for them in the first place.

Trust is Positively Correlated to Risk

Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States, was known to quote a Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” For our purposes, the opposite is true. Real trust does not need verification; if you have to verify, it is not trust.

Sometimes businesspeople forget this and try to ameliorate or mitigate all risks. This is particularly true in professions like law, finance, or banking. But the essence of trust contains risk. A trust relationship cannot exist without someone taking a chance—and it is your job to lead the way. If you think, I can’t take that kind of risk yet because there’s not enough trust in the relationship, check your thinking. It is the very taking of risks that creates trust in the relationship.

Ready to start your new trust-based mindset? Mind your Ps.

 

Butt-Kicked by the Universe

Oh man, did I do something stupid, embarrassing and untrustworthy today.

A colleague forwarded me a calendar invite originally sent by a client. I NEVER respond to an actual calendar invite as if it’s an email; I always respond to the actual invitation using the buttons “accept,” “reject,” or “tentative.”

But today, for reasons unknown only to whoever is in charge of the universe, I replied (I thought!!) to my colleague, regarding the client (Fred).

I wrote:

“…I’m so mad at Fred…seems like he hasn’t sent out all the materials we worked on last week.  I am trying not to be pissed.  I’m really frustrated. I’m trying to hold off getting too irate in case he did send stuff out…”

You guessed it. My response went straight to Fred.

He wrote back, “Hi Sarah, was this meant for me?”

That Gut-Punched Feeling

Ughh. As I had been writing that email, my gut was screaming at me: “You always say not to put in writing anything you wouldn’t be comfortable having the whole world read.”

You could say – I would – that the universe intervened because I had violated the “Inner Voice” rule.  The Inner Voice Rule is, “Say the things you’re thinking but don’t share.”  It’s where truth lies, and turbo-boosts the Intimacy component of the Trust Equation.

The Inner Voice Rule.

I groaned. Then I immediately wrote back to Fred:  “I am so embarrassed.  The email was meant for Julie, not you, and I’m sorry.  Are you somewhere I can call you?”  We spoke five minutes later.

I started: “Fred, I’m so sorry.  I knew as I was typing that email that I needed to pick up the phone and call you…I’m aware I have been avoiding a conversation with you.”  Fred was extra-gracious, acknowledging that he hadn’t met his commitments and that he understood where my frustration came from.

He then said, “And we’ve both been to Trusted Advisor programs,” which created a clearing for us to deal in an authentic way with the trust breakdown.  We worked through things; we both left the conversation having said what we needed to say, and feeling complete (and a commitment on my part to talk to Fred next time instead of complaining to my colleague).

He sent out the materials within 15 minutes.

The Universe Kicks Butt

I’m a bit fearful of calling myself a hypocrite on a blogpost destined for internet eternity. But if I’m real about it, what I salvaged from my mess du jour is that I talk a big game about clear speaking, using Inner Voice, and sharing constructive feedback – while the truth is, I’m woefully out of practice.  I choose to believe that the universe intervened today to give me a butt kick wake up call; to call me on being real and not a poser.

There, I said it.

So: what did I learn from the Universe today?

  • NEVER, EVER put in writing anything you wouldn’t want shared with the world
  • When what you have to say about another serves to diminish them, it’s time to either:

a) admit you’ve been a jerk and have a conversation with that person, or

b) own up and end the relationship.

  • The courage to have un-had conversations leads to growth, learning and deeper trust.
  • If we think of constructive feedback as “scary, bad, judgmental or otherwise” then we don’t share the most important stuff.  Then all that stuff builds up and – we send stupid emails.
  • If you make a mess – make it Priority One to clean it up immediately.

Lake Wobegon Syndrome: Believing We’re All Above Average

Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Wobegon is that Midwestern enclave where:

…the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.

Lately, there are curious signs of incipient Wobegonism – at least the part about the kids. On average, we’re all looking just a little too above-average.

Unconditional Positive Self-Regard

I once watched Marshall Goldsmith ask a room of conference participants to lower their heads, then raise their hands if they thought they were in the top 50% of performers in the room. Then, to keep their hands up if they were in the top 25%; then, the top 10%.

When he finally asked people to raise their heads, all could plainly see that over half the room had indicated they were in the top 10%.

The concept of unconditional positive regard is well-known among therapists. There’s something to be said about positive self-regard as well, in the simple sense that if you can’t accept yourself you’re going to have trouble dealing with other people.

But what happens if your sense of self-regard begins to diverge from reality? What happens if you begin to believe you’re All That – and honestly, you’re not?

Reality Bites

Generation Y, famously raised on a sense of entitlement, is having a tough time confronting today’s horrific economic environment. 60% think they have the right to work remotely, with flexible schedules, despite the economy.

Worse, Gen Y’s much-vaunted computer skills may have been overstated; social media savvy doesn’t translate well to spreadsheets, or even to navigating hierarchical menu structures.

Perhaps recognizing an inflection point, the Wellesley High School graduating class recently made news for being told in a commencement speech that “You are not special…you are not exceptional.”

But it’s not just about Gen Y – not by a long shot. Here at Trusted Advisor Associates, we’ve noticed a distinct case of “grade inflation.” Scores on our Trust Quotient (TQ) self-assessment, have been creeping up over the past year or two. There are several possible explanations, including:

  1. people are becoming more trustworthy,
  2. people think they are becoming more trustworthy.

I have a sneaking suspicion it’s the latter.  Stay tuned.

Overstating our importance is a natural consequence of ignorance. Believing the world is flat was understandable in a world without airplanes or telescopes. But when a modern nation like the US has 46% of its population who believe in creationism, some cognitive dysfunction is afoot.

Politicians bear some blame.  The Speaker of the House declares that the US has “the best healthcare system in the world,” which defies logic unless you exclude the other developed economies.

Many pols publicly support the fiction that balancing the national budget is fundamentally the same as balancing a household budget. Any undergrad econ major can tell you the rules of national economies and households are precisely the opposite. It’s hard to tell if this statement lie is cynical, or just grossly ignorant, much less which is worse.

In our social haste to abandon low self-esteem, we have overplayed the power of a positive attitude. We once heard phrases like “you make your own luck,” “smile before you dial,” and, “the glass is half full.” Corporate training once taught that you could act your way into right thinking.

Somehow, those morphed into, “Hold fast to your dream and it will come true,” saying affirmations until they “manifest,” and best sellers like The Secret. We’ve gone way past “thinking your way into right action,” all the way to “envision reality until reality changes to fit our thinking!”

One of the biggest instances of hubris in our time has to be finance. Efficient market theory, the agency theory that led to private equity, and the various financial engineering “innovations” we have seen in recent decades – all are testimony to a belief that we have found revealed (financial) truth. Yet time and again, it seems we have not.

Two Flavors of Humility

There are two kinds of humility. One consists “not in thinking less of ourselves, but in thinking of ourselves less.” The other amounts to, well, thinking less of ourselves – realizing that we’re not, in fact, All That.

We need a little of both.

Thinking of ourselves less drives relationship thinking; it civilizes us, focuses us on other people. It is the root of social behavior, charity, and most of the higher virtues.

Thinking of ourselves less drives other-focus, collaboration, and connection. It enables client focus, allows us to see value adding potential, and creates the basis for reciprocity and customer loyalty.

Thinking less of ourselves is neither sin nor virtue except insofar as our starting point is delusional. Thinking we know it all is a cyclical affectation, a very human failing we are nonetheless good at forgetting.

Until once again things blow up, revert to the mean, and we get our comeuppance, or our karmic smackdown, or our luck runs out.  What we call it depends on how much we still believe we understand what just happened.

Here’s what we need a whole lot more of:

“I really am not sure; what do you think?”

Trusted Advisor? Or Just Not a Crook?

The term “trusted advisor” has been around a long time.  Recently I wrote about how the phrase has undergone “trusted advisor inflation” and become far more casually used.

When Maister, Galford and I wrote the book The Trusted Advisor back in 2001, one of our aims was to debunk the idea that trust was mainly about competence, credentials and cognition. We said:

..becoming a good advisor takes more than having good advice to offer. There are additional skills involved, ones that no one ever teaches you, that are critical to your success…you don’t get the chance to employ advisory skills until you can get someone to trust you enough to share their problems with you.

The theme of this book is that the key to professional success is not just technical mastery of one’s discipline (which is, of course, essential), but also the ability to work with clients in such a way as to earn their trust and gain their confidence.

We went on to say:

The trusted advisor is the person the client turns to when an issue first arises, often in times of great urgency, a crisis, a change, a triumph or a defeat.

Issues at this level are no longer just seen as organizational problems, but also involve a personal dimension. Becoming a trusted advisor, the pinnacle level, requires an integration of content expertise with organizational and interpersonal skills.

That was then (2001). To my astonishment, it appears that not everyone in the world has read our book and committed it to memory. (Imagine that.)

Thin Trust

That’s not the way a lot of the world has come to use the term “trusted advisor.” The following quotes are taken from current promotional literature:

Full disclosure of conflicting interests is the only way to build and keep trust with your clients.

For decades, CPAs in public practice have laid a foundation of trust with clients by competently handling confidential financial data and performing core services such as tax preparation.

There has been much talk about how accountants should embrace value based, business improvement services so that they can step up and truly embrace their trusted advisor status. Yet little has been written on how to go about doing that in a way that sits firmly within the accountant’s heartland – the numbers.

A trusted adviser offering objective solutions in wealth structuring based on XYZ Research and industry leading global resources…who understands clients’ specific investment needs, structure and area of interest…the trusted advisor is complemented with a team of financial experts and corporate resources.

As your trusted advisor, XYZ delivers a wealth strategy service to manage the financial complexities in your life.

Your loan closing is just the beginning of our relationship.  Annual mortgage reviews and rate watches are just a few of the benefits XYZ provides to their clients.   That is why __ will not only be your mortgage Planner, but your Trusted Advisor as well.

I’m deliberately not providing links here because I’m not trying to embarrass anyone, but rather to make a simple point: the idea of a “trusted advisor” as synonymous with nothing more than competence, credentials and procedural compliance clearly lives on.

Who should you trust? According to these views, someone who’s been vetted by the industry, many will tell you. How will you know you can trust them? By the number of letters after their name, or by the stress tests they’ve passed. Or in some cases, by the way they are paid (via fees, rather than transactional commissions).

Let’s be clear: basing trustworthiness on whether or not one structurally faces financial temptation is a pretty low hurdle. It reminds me of Nixon’s famous utterance, “I am not a crook.”

Barring someone from temptation doesn’t create deep trust in them. While avoiding conflict of interest is a good thing, it’s entry-level stuff.  We reserve deeper trust for those who face temptation, and who nonetheless rise above it through ethics and character.

The bar for being a trusted advisor is higher than not being a crook, being competent, and passing industry equivalents of drug tests.

Reclaiming Trust

A few years ago, we wrote a White Paper: If You Think Competency Sells, Think Again. In it we provided research proving what Maister, Galford and I had claimed a decade earlier: that the dominant factors driving trustworthiness are not competence, business acumen and procedural rigor.

The more powerful drivers of trustworthiness are, in fact, the ‘softer’ side of things: the “intimacy” and “other-orientation” factors we identified in the trust equation.

It may have become fashionable to deny it, but human wiring has not changed in the last decade; we are still prone to trust those we feel secure confiding in, and those whom we feel have our best interests at heart.

They’re only beginning to teach that at business schools (Bill George is an exception). And you will not find it by mastering documented procedures or by improving your business acumen.